Study uncovers blind spots in cognitive health research

By Nikki Hancocks

- Last updated on GMT

© Suwadee sangsriruang / Getty Images
© Suwadee sangsriruang / Getty Images

Related tags Cognitive health Research

New cognitive health testing tools are required to improve supplement marketing by matching nutrition research outcomes with consumer expectations.

Cognition is now a key health target for supplements and functional food and drink products on the market in a global brain health supplements market valued at $8.63 billion in 2022 and expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 13.3% from 2023 to 2030​.

Scientific substantiation of brain health benefits is crucial for promoting these products, yet rarely is it considered whether standardized cognitive tests in clinical tests align with outcomes of interest to the consumer.

This knowledge gap presents a challenge to the scientific substantiation of nutrition-based cognitive health benefits, according to a recent study published in the journal Nutrients.

“For the first time, we documented how consumers comprehend the potential benefits of nutrition on brain health,” the U.S.-based researchers wrote. “There is a need to accurately understand what consumers hope to achieve from functional foods, beverages and supplements, especially regarding day-to-day benefits so that it can be paired with clear information that is scientifically substantiated.”

They added that closing the gap between science and consumers and fostering co-creative approaches to nutrition research are critical to the development of products and dietary recommendations that support realizable cognitive benefits that benefit public health. 


The researchers compared qualitative consumer expectation research with knowledge from an expert panel to uncover the gaps in cognitive health research methodology.

The independent organization NORC at the University of Chicago carried out four focus groups (39 participants between the ages of 19 and 59) involving ‘mainstream’ consumers of cognitive health supplements and functional foods to determine: The benefits consumers expected from nutritional products, how they articulate these benefits in their own words and how they expect these benefits to play out in everyday life.

A multidisciplinary expert panel was asked whether current cognitive performance tools/tasks can substantiate specific cognitive benefits articulated by the consumers.

The expert panel included scientists specialized in cognitive health and the development of psychometrically robust measurements, the effect of diet and nutrition on cognition and brain health, and translational consumer research.

Prospective memory, flow and presence 

Experts agreed that validated tests exist and have already been used to test efficacy of nutrition interventions for some benefits noted by consumers including focused attention, sustained attention, episodic memory, energy levels and anxiety.

However, some consumers discussed memory in terms of their ability to remember tasks that need to be completed as part of their day-to-day routines (aka prospective memory). The study noted that prospective memory has rarely been investigated in relation to nutrition, therefore it is currently unclear whether the limited available tests (e.g., Cambridge Prospective Memory Test) have the appropriate degree of sensitivity.

Consumers also spoke about a desire to be 'in the zone', which is a concept in psychology known as a 'flow state'; a mental state in which a person is completely focused on a single task or activity. The expert panel said studies have not yet considered the effect of nutrition on the propensity to enter flow states and so it is unknown if tools available would be effective at testing this. However, they said numerous well validated scales do exist, such as the Flow State Scale and Dispositional Flow Scale.

Consumers regularly described a sense of being 'present' or 'in the moment' as  perceptions of brain health and reasons for taking supplements.

The expert panel noted that several mindfulness questionnaires have subscales which could be used to measure presence. For example, the Five Factor Mindfulness Questionnaire Action Awareness subscale. However, whether such measures are sensitive to the effects of nutrition are not known. The study suggested that researchers interested in these areas should consider reverse causality given that mindfulness has been associated with obesogenic eating styles. 


Source: Nutrients
doi: 10.3390/nu16121950
“Alignment of Consumers’ Expected Brain Benefits from Food and Supplements with Measurable Cognitive Performance Tests”
Authors: Young, H.A. et al.

Related topics Research Cognitive function

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